Chalice is a different reading experience from the Robin McKinley versions of classic fairytales like Beauty and the Beast. It really is another world and it takes some time to sort out what is going on and what it means. Once you work your way in, you are hooked, though, and it’s a fast clip through the action of the plot to the very satisfying finish.
In the demesne of Willowlands, Mirasol is a beekeeper from one of the old families. She hears the earthlines murmur and protest and her abilities land her the position of Chalice when the Master and the Chalice die in some disaster of disharmony with the forces of nature they govern. The demesnes are kept whole and balanced by the Master, Chalice and Circle—each has a specific role. The Chalice must bind the land and people and the Master together to create a profound harmony but Marisol despairs because there is no Master and she does not have the long years of apprenticship that prepare someone for her role. As she struggles to absorb myriad arcane rules and protocols and provide the service required of a Chalice, she takes frequent refuge in her small woodright and tends her bees. Bees and honey she knows better than anything else—Marisol’s honey is the best in Willowlands and it has energizing and healing powers.
And then the Circle sends for the old Master’s younger brother to be the new Master. The younger son of another old lineage, he was shipped off to become a Priest of Fire when his arrogant brother became Master. Now he returns to protect the land and no one knows if someone who is far into the process of becoming Fire can even be around humans or safeguard Willowlands. An accidental touch from him will sear flesh right to the bone.
Intrigue abounds. Outsiders arrive to wrest control from the half-Fire, half-human Master. Marisol tries to win the trust of the people and perform the Chalice rituals that keep the land from tearing apart. The story is amazing, unexpected, beautifully written and engaging. It’s fantasy but not a classic fairytale. There is trickery, romance, challenge, cataclysmic upheaval and villainy to deal with. Marisol inadvertently commits a grievous error that could destroy the land and will certainly wreck her own life. It’s an odd story but never a dull one.
Robin McKinley must live in another realm entirely when she writes these books. Chalice is such a completely realized world—and such a complex and foreign one—that I can’t imagine how she moves into that space to write and then emerges to have lunch or talk to ordinary people. Bravo to her for pulling it off, though. The bees are a force to be reckoned with and so, in the end, is the beekeeper. You can almost taste the honey, feel the fire and the fear, and see the spells that heal villagers and rifts in the land as the Chalice works her uncertain magic, hoping somehow it will be enough.
Chalice Robin McKinley | Firebird 2008